9.00SC | Fall 2011 | Undergraduate
Introduction to Psychology
Adult Development

Discussion: Development

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Today we’ll talk a little bit about adolescence, which we’ve all experienced; adulthood and aging, including changes in the body, in perception, and in cognition; and social and emotional development across the lifespan.

As for adolescence, it’s that period between puberty and the end of the teenage years. We know a lot about the biology, of course, but adolescence is an interesting time psychologically because people are coming to grips with themselves as a member of a broader community and trying to understand what their place is in that community. When you were younger, it was basically you and your parents, and you might have had friends, but you weren’t constantly caught up in random, chaotic social situations like, well, high school. In high school, there are all kinds of social pressures. Your relationships aren’t defined for you – you have to define them for yourself. And it becomes a challenge for some people to figure out where they, as individuals, fit into a larger social structure.

If people handle this badly, what can happen is called a cognitive distortion, which is a change in your perception of your relationship to the social structure around you. One of the distortions is called the imaginary audience, in which the teenager views himself as an actor and everyone else as an audience. This belief leads teens to be extremely self-conscious and easily embarrassed, as they imagine that everyone else is hyper-attentive to them—not in a good way (“I’m a movie star!”), but usually in a bad way (“Everyone’s staring at the pimple on my forehead!”)

On the other hand, the teenager can develop this personal fable, viewing himself as having extraordinary powers and privileges, resulting in a reckless lifestyle. This could lead to drinking irresponsibly, driving irresponsibility, having sex irresponsibly, etc.

What do you think about cognitive distortions? Did you, or do you, feel this way sometimes?

Students in this class asked: Is there a middle ground, such that the adolescent experiences both distortions? It seems like it would depend on the situation. If you’re really shy at school you might have the imaginary audience, but on the weekends, with close friends, you might take a lot of stupid risks.

There’s a lot of psychological distress in adolescence as people are coming into their new roles as individuals. Conflicts are a key part of adolescence: conflicts within yourself, conflicts with peers, conflicts with parents. Conflicts with parents tend to be more frequent early in adolescence, and more intense as it progresses. Mood swings, too, are part of adolescence, to the point that if teens were adults, they might meet the clinical definition of being depressed. What do you think the source of this might be? How is it consistent with the theories of emotion that we’ve discussed? In general, we can attribute these changes to surges of hormones during adolescence. Being unfamiliar with their new physiological reactions, teenagers may be less able to regulate their emotions. And lastly, adolescents are known for their risk-taking. They seem to have no concept of death or mortality.

Moral development across the lifespan is very interesting. Kohlberg has developed these three phases of moral development, which seem like major milestones. My question to you is, how accurate are they at capturing our moral reasoning? Here, Kohlberg is not so much interested in what kinds of moral conclusions you come to (i.e., what is or is not morally acceptable), but in what kind of reasoning you use to arrive at that decision.

The classic story is one of a man whose wife is dying of a rare disease. A pharmacist develops a medicine for it, but is selling it at an incredibly high price. The man asks all his friends but can’t quite scrape together enough money. He asks the pharmacist if he can buy it for less or let him pay him back later. The pharmacist refuses, and so the man breaks in and steals the medicine. Should he have done that?

Sample Answer

The man probably understands the consequences of what he’s doing, but he’d rather save his wife. I’m not sure whether his stealing was moral, but I think most people would agree that what the pharmacist did was immoral, because he was valuing money above a human life.

It’s not about whether you think he should or shouldn’t have stolen the medicine, it’s how you reason about it. And Kohlberg identified what he thought were three levels of moral development depending on what kind of rationale you gave.

The first level, the preconventional level, is where the right thing to do is what an authority figure tells you to do, or what you need to do to avoid punishment. In this situation, someone might say that it was immoral because he’ll have to go to jail if he breaks the law.

The second level, the conventional level, is where the moral thing to do is the one that is most socially acceptable – usually the Golden Rule. At this stage, someone might say that if he lets his wife die, he’s weak or uncaring.

At the third level, the postconventional level, morality is based on abstract, universal principles such as the sanctity of human life. An example of this kind of reasoning might be, “Protecting human life is our most important duty, above that of protecting private property.”

What do you think? Are these discrete stages? Do people progress through them in order? Are they universal? Do you think other cultures would invoke different kinds of morality or value different kinds of reasoning?

It’s also important to note that Kohlberg only studied men and boys in this research. Do you think his theory is less valid because of this? Would you hypothesize that females reason differently?

Critical Thinking

The aging brain goes through a number of changes, including the atrophy of gray matter, the impairment of neurotransmitter function, and the shrinking of the frontal lobes and the hippocampus.

The shrinking of the hippocampus and the frontal lobes is correlated with impaired recall and reduced working memory, a phenomenon which you may have noticed in older friends and family members. Imagine that you wanted to design a study to investigate memory abilities at different points in the lifespan. How would you design your study? What kind of participants would you recruit?

In a longitudinal study, you would test the same group of people repeatedly throughout their lives. In a cross-sectional study, you would test different groups of people at the same time, with each group composed of individuals of the same age. List two pros and two cons of each design for memory research. Which would you recommend?

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Fall 2011
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